Vale’s iron ore recovery plant in Copper Cliff is slowly being demolished. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network
As Vale erects a pair of new, efficient stacks on its Copper Cliff smelter, it is simultaneously tearing down a huge, abandoned building near Fielding Road that, in its day, also helped to reduce emissions.
The structure housed a few peregrine falcons for a spell, too, but those birds — since relocated to an adjacent chimney — won’t be affected, Vale promises, except in the sense that they will have “front-row seats of the dramatic events from their nearby nesting boxes.”
The roaster kiln building, quite prominent as you drive between Copper Cliff and Lively, “operated from 1955 to the late 1980s as part of Inco’s iron ore recovery plant,” said Danica Pagnutti, with corporate and Indigenous affairs at Vale, in an email to The Star.
Decommissioning of the structure is now underway and one corner has already been removed, with the remainder to be taken down gradually over the next few months.
The ore recovery plant was “a unique place that was ahead of its time in reducing sulphur dioxide emissions and producing sustainable products,” Pagnutti said, with reference to an article published recently in Vale News.
The story, titled Summer of ’71, shares the experience of retired Inco/Vale worker Pat Thompson, who signed on at 18 as a student labourer at the plant.
“I came into this huge building, with big machines,” he told Vale News. “It was quite something back in the day and I had never been in any place like that before.”
The ore plant recovered slurry byproducts that came from the Copper Cliff concentrator.
“Compounds of iron, sulphur, nickel and copper that would have otherwise been left in tailing ponds were being recovered,” the article notes, making it fairly advanced for its era in terms of environmental responsibility.
“It was a unique place and, in fact, was a major step in sulphur dioxide emissions reduction — long before the sulphur abatement project (SOAP), or the more recent abatement project,” Thompson reflected. “It also produced products out of waste material, a truly sustainable approach, long before sustainability became commonplace.”
The plant itself was self-sustaining in many respects, too, practising the Three Rs in a way that departed from the industry norm.
“The roasting process was autogenous, arising from within, meaning the sulphur in the pyrrhotite (a reddish-bronze mineral consisting of iron sulphide) was the fuel,” said Thompson.
The heat from the roasting process, meanwhile, was converted into steam, which was sent to a generator for electricity and heat. “All these things were integrated in a unique way,” said the former Vale worker, who finished his career as a manager of environment, health and safety.
Times change, however, and the plant eventually ran its course.
The Vale News article cites “changes in mill processes” as the primary catalyst. “For example, we are now able to extract compounds formerly used in the pyrrhotite (which had previously been sent to the recovery plant), leaving less to remove in subsequent processing.”
The site became topical again a decade ago, however, when a pair of peregrine falcons — a threatened species — moved into the derelict kiln building.
“Until we found a way to deal with the falcons, we couldn’t move forward with the demo,” noted Thompson.
Chris Blomme, a biologist with Laurentian University and a keen birder, got involved at the time along with members of Vale and the Ministry of Natural Resources to establish an alternative nesting site for the birds.
“We set up a hack box (a box that shields a nest from predators) on the base of a chimney and they have been using that off and on for the last few years,” he said. “It seemed like a good site and they did adopt it.”
Blomme said peregrine falcons were reintroduced to the area around 1989-90, and there are now about four to five sites in the city that host breeding pairs.
“They’re fairly territorial and statistically you would have to go 15 miles to find another pair,” he said.
The best time to see the Fielding Road falcons is in spring, when they “do mating flights,” as well as act on “territorial imperatives to secure a nesting site,” he said.
The adults can also be seen “perching on the rungs of the chimney, often during the warm part of the day,” Blomme added.
Peregrine falcons were initially classified as an endangered species, but as their numbers have stabilized, they have been downgraded to a status of special concern.
That means the species “lives in the wild in Ontario (and) is not endangered or threatened, but may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats,” according to the province.
Blomme said Vale still has a use for the chimney and he is confident the birds will continue to make a home there, although there will likely be some barn swallows and pigeons displaced as the kiln building comes down.
Few would describe the roaster kiln building as attractive, particularly as it has been left to decay and corrode, but it has certainly been a noticeable Sudbury landmark, and for some, like Thompson, it represents an important stage of a career and a time of great camaraderie.
“The plant is a big chapter in my life; it was a big part of my life for 15 years,” said the retiree. “It was a great place to work. I went on to do a lot of things, but there was no place in my career that matched my time at the iron ore plant.”